I want to talk about Kingdom Hearts‘s lore.
Don’t close your browser tab! I promise I’m not going to try and explain it to you. I’m not fully confident that I could, and I’ve played every game in the series (and enjoyed most of them!). I just want to point out that Kingdom Hearts is often lambasted for its impenetrable lore, and that’s a criticism which strikes me as somewhat misguided. One could level a similar accusation at the Metal Gear Solid games, for instance, and Hideo Kojima’s convoluted stealth epic seldom receives the same sort of withering sneers as Square Enix’s series of sojourns through the worlds of Walt Disney. Kingdom Hearts doesn’t deserve our scorn for being a tangled mess of doppelgangers, deception, and Donald Duck.
No, Kingdom Hearts deserves our scorn when it fails to do anything interesting with that Gordian knot of Goofy and Gummi Ships. Sometimes, Kingdom Hearts connects its characters in ways that potently pull at the heartstrings. Sometimes, it settles for being deliberately opaque and pretending that that makes it interesting.
For a perfect example of this frustrating opacity, look no further than the compilation’s full title: Kingdom Hearts 2.8 HD Final Chapter Prologue. Is it meant to suggest that the three stories contained within comprise the prologue to Kingdom Hearts III, implied to be the final chapter of the series? Or does it mean that one of the three offerings is the final chapter to Birth by Sleep, a game which could be called the prologue of the series?
And take, as a second example, one of the three pieces contained within Kingdom Hearts 2.8 is Kingdom Hearts Χ Back Cover, an hour-long CG movie that adapts the backstory presented within Kingdom Hearts Χ, the gacha mobile game released last year which was itself a port of a Japan-only browser game released several years prior. In this movie, every speaking character save one either wears a mask or one of the hooded, full-body cloaks which have dominated the series’ fashion since the second game was released. It’s difficult to feel anything for these characters when you never see any of their faces. There’s a lot of shouting about traitors and betrayal and everyone seems very upset at each other, but no concrete stakes are ever outlined and there’s no real sense of a plot arc. It’s not even particularly attractive. It’s not just an expository dump, it’s a lot of hackneyed dialogue out of which you’re meant to extract exposition and then… attempt to link it up with the rest of the lore? Maybe?
Kingdom Hearts X Back Cover represents the series’ worst tendencies. I wish I had my hour back.
The flipside of this is Kingdom Hearts 0.2 Birth by Sleep -A fragmentary passage-, which only represents the series’ worst tendencies in terms of appalling subtitles and is otherwise some of the best stuff that Kingdom Hearts has ever offered. KH0.2 stars Aqua, one of the three protagonists from 2010’s KH: Birth by Sleep, and gives a glimpse into what happens to her after the events of that game. This is an example of Kingdom Hearts using its lore to excellent effect: giving us control over a character we care about whose fate was left uncertain, and tempting us that we might bring her one step closer to the happy ending that has been left dangling just out of our reach.
Aqua’s chapter really drives home that there have been fully two console generations since Kingdom Hearts II — everything in the interim has either been a remaster or on a handheld system. The environments in KH0.2 are luscious, the cartoony textures of earlier games supplanted by a much greater level of detail, as though we’d stepped from Sleeping Beauty directly into Frozen. The game’s action is as hyperkinetic as anything in the series so far, with attack combos carrying you across the battlefield into finishers that explode like fireworks and fill the screen with light and sound. The ability to counterattack immediately after a parry, which seems pulled from Final Fantasy XV, is no less compelling here. There is a recurring boss, a giant swarm of Heartless that moves with alarming speed, that is just completely unlike anything in any of the other games in a way that makes it both marvelous and deeply unsettling. Yoko Shimomura’s piano and strings continue to make your heart heave in your chest even when the game’s dialogue doesn’t earn it.
The catch, of course, is the game’s running time. I dawdled, lollygagged, and poked my nose into every nook and cranny, and the game took me just three hours to complete. There are a handful of incentives to go back through Aqua’s chapter — optional objectives which carry over from playthrough to playthrough, and, uh, costume pieces to unlock — but the game’s linear nature means that most people will probably not be enticed to play it again. In many ways, it seems like KH0.2 is meant to be a sampler platter for the kind of gameplay we can likely expect in Kingdom Hearts III, when and if it finally arrives.
That “if” looms pretty large, but I’d like to set it aside for just a moment to discuss the third item included in the compilation, Kingdom Hearts Dream Drop Distance HD, a remaster of the 3DS game from 2012. By far the meatiest of the three offerings, Dream Drop Distance is a full-length title stuffed to the gills with systems and collectibles, most of which are fun to play around with. The “Flowmotion” system allows you to bounce off walls, spin around lampposts, and generally fly all over the place as you’re whacking Heartless and exploring the game’s (relatively large, if empty) arenas. Stalwart sidekicks Donald and Goofy sit this entry out in favor of “Dream Eaters,” friendly (and collectible!) Heartless stand-ins that join you, granting both status boosts and team-up attacks. You can stack your “Command Deck” with your preferred ability set. There’s an optional card-based battle arena. You level up your Dream Eaters by feeding them candy, petting them, and playing mini-games. You get the picture.
Dream Drop Distance HD is structured around the Drop system, which sees you switching between protagonists Sora and Riku at regular intervals — and you’re mostly powerless as to when this switching happens. Ninety percent of the time, it’s an innocuous way to break up the flow of the game and allow you to switch gears. That other ten percent of the time, it will rip you out of (occasionally quite difficult!) boss battles, forcing you to restart them from the beginning when you regain control of your alternate protagonist. It’s unlikely to bite you more than twice or thrice in a playthrough, but man alive is it a pain when it happens.
It’s refreshing to see mostly new Disney worlds visited, though some of them are kind of lackluster (the Hunchback of Notre Dame world feels like an awkward choice, and the Three Musketeers world doesn’t make use of the source material as well as one might hope). There’s a Fantasia world that’s colorful and vibrant, though, and I’d be lying if I didn’t admit a certain weakness for the Tron Legacy world.
As the plot progresses, it becomes pretty clear that Dream Drop Distance is a ramp-up to Kingdom Hearts III, bringing in threads from every other entry in the series, from 358/2 Days to Birth by Sleep, in an attempt to set up the ultimate conflict for the series as a whole. It’s a pretty good refresher on what the series seems to think is important, lore-wise, and if you have a cursory understanding of the series’ story then it’ll bring you up to speed.
And this is where I’d like to come back to that “if” I set aside a few paragraphs ago: This collection as a whole is quite obviously meant to be a primer for Kingdom Hearts III. Even the number it’s been assigned, “2.8,” seems to have no other significance than being “almost 3.” Dream Drop Distance rounds up the story so far to lead into the final conflict, KH0.2 is an amuse-bouche meant to give an indication of what a full-scale Kingdom Hearts game can look and play like on modern consoles, and doubtless the folks at Square Enix expect some poor wiki writer to digest and regurgitate the events of Back Cover.
But here’s the thing: Kingdom Hearts III was announced three and a half years ago, at E3 2013. In his most recent interview, series director Tetsuya Nomura said that development on the game “still had some way to go.” The last game from Square Enix that Nomura was in charge of was Final Fantasy XV, which was in development for ten years, handed over to a different director to be completed, and was still something of a jumbled mess when it was released. Kingdom Hearts III might well meet a similar fate, and even if it arrives intact and polished, it probably won’t be for a few years yet.
If you’re a Kingdom Hearts fan who is without a Nintendo 3DS, it might be worthwhile for you to pick this collection up. Dream Drop Distance is a solid entry in the series (either the fourth- or fifth-best Kingdom Hearts, depending on how you feel about card-based battle systems), and the delectable bonbon that is KH0.2 is certainly worth your time. Unless you fall into that very specific subset of people, however, I’m afraid there’s probably not enough here to warrant a recommendation at full price.